July 14, 2022

Tiger Woods’ Old Course Return Started With A Bad Break

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Everything has led to this. The catchphrase plastered all over the Old Course signage this week refers to golf as a whole; St. Andrews being the birthplace and residence of the game, and this being the 150th playing of the Open Championship, this week does indeed feel like the culmination of … well, everything. But those five words could just as well describe the leadup to Tiger Woods’ latest comeback. He had this tournament circled on his calendar since before he could walk again. He skipped the U.S. Open to ensure he could play. He’s won twice here. It’s his favorite golf course in the world. He prepped way harder for this tournament than he did the other two majors he played in this year. Everything has led to this.

It started promisingly enough, with Woods flushing a long iron into the center of the expansive first fairway—only for his ball to rest in a fresh, sandy divot. Not five minutes later, a proper buzzkill: Woods’ approach one-hopped into the burn guarding the front of the green, he blocked a four-footer for bogey, and this never really happened at all.

Woods played his first seven holes in six over par to eject himself from relevance in his 22nd Open Championship start and needed to play his final 10 holes in one-under par to salvage a barely respectable six-over 78.

“It feels like I didn’t really hit it that bad,” Woods said. “Yes, I did have bad speed on the greens, yes. But I didn’t really feel like I hit it that bad, but I ended up in bad spots. Or just had some weird things happen. And just the way it goes. Links is like that. And this golf course is like that. And as I said, I had my chances to turn it around and get it rolling the right way and I didn’t do it.”

Woods’ unraveling happened quickly; the rest of the round did not. The threesome of Woods, Max Homa and Matt Fitzpatrick needed six hours and nine minutes to finish their rounds, and it had nothing to do with any of the three—the Old Course’s firm conditions, criss-cross routing and adjacent-holes layout turned Thursday into a slog for virtually the entire field. It was a struggle for the healthy 26-year-olds; for a 46-year-old with a fused back and significant hardware holding his right leg together, being on your feet for that long is a worst-case scenario. Still, Woods did not look to struggle physically throughout the round and walked mostly without a limp.

“Yeah, it was a lot easier today, physically, than it has been the other two events, for sure,” he said. Which makes sense—the Old Course is a much flatter, easier walk than either Augusta National or Southern Hills, and Woods’ preparation regimen was not that of a man particularly worried about his body. He had walked 58 holes at St. Andrews by Tuesday at noon and arrived at the course a full 80 minutes before his tee time on Thursday. A stripey range session, coupled with a baked-out golf course that would reward guile and precision over power, brought a healthy dose of optimism that Woods could contend.

But playing well in practice and on the range does not equate to playing well on the course, and manufacturing a score in competition is made exponentially more difficult when you simply do not play very often. This, of course, is just Woods’ third tournament of 2022 and his third since the single-car accident that nearly cost him his leg. Woods has struggled with his short game in his limited play this year, and he putted horribly on Thursday, by his and by anyone’s standards. It started on the first hole and continued throughout the lengthy afternoon; Woods’ lag putting was rather poor, as he struggled to get the ball to the hole on the slower and bumpy surfaces. He three-putted the fourth hole, the 11th, the 13th and failed to two-putt from the Valley of Sin just short of the 18th green.

“Just wasn’t very good on the greens. And every putt I left short. I struggled with hitting the putts hard enough. They looked faster than what they were putting, and I struggled with it.”

A still-packed grandstand after 9 p.m. local time thanked Woods with a standing ovation. “They were fantastic,” Woods said of the fans. “Absolutely fantastic. So supportive.”. If there is a positive to take from the disappointing round, it’s that Woods’ focus after it wasn’t on whether he’d be physically ready for the quick turnaround before Friday morning’s tee time; it was on getting back into the tournament.

“Looks like I’m going to have to shoot 66 tomorrow to have a chance. So obviously it has been done. Guys did it today. And that’s my responsibility tomorrow is to go ahead and do it. Need to do it.”